Bringing the Caribbean to Columbia City

Columbia city is celebrating the birth of another fine new restaurant, Island Soul. Specializing in Caribbean cuisine, the restaurant has found a place in the space once occupied by The Wellington.

The warmth of the golden-hued space makes you feel like you've left Seattle and are soaking up life, island style, while chowing down on authentic Caribbean food, and that is the goal of owners Theo and Gaelyn Martin.

This amiable couple, with the welcoming smiles, moved their restaurant, formally known as Casuelita's Island Soul of Judkins Park, to Columbia City because it is more of a business and restaurant community. They wanted to offer the area comfort food that island people eat at home on a daily basis in an atmosphere reminiscent of sun and fun.

To do so required experience and a vision. High energy, Martin speaks with the business acumen of a person who loves good food, loves making sure his customers are well-fed, and the knowledge of how a restaurant can build a sense of home for the community.

Martin learned to cook as a teenager with his father Loy Martin, at the Judkins location, a building Theo proudly states has been in his family for 30 years. After cooking for Miss Leonard, a venerable area restaurateur who was known in the area for her weekly Sunday thanksgiving feasts, Martin was eager to branch out on his own.

He worked as a buyer and manager for Nordstrom while cooking full time plus raising a family (the couple have three children). Additionally, he and his wife started Olympic Staffing Service, a successful employment agency, but after four years, Martin was eager to return to his roots as a chef, opening the Judkins Park restaurant in 2003.

The couple moved their restaurant to Columbia City with a grand opening on June 6, just in time for Beatwalk. Martin noted that often restaurants change location and also change the menu, much to the disappointment of their customers. But their fans needn't fear: the menu has remained the same.

Martin sees Island Soul offering the public three things: great food at a good value, great music, and island art. The restaurant will feature live music on the first weekend of every month including reggae, steel drums, Calypso, and zydeco.

"The food and music should make you feel like it takes you away from Seattle, that you are somewhere in the islands so when you walk in the door you want to take off your shoes, put your feet in the sand, and start eating and enjoying yourself," Martin said

The Martins themselves enjoy dining out and try to offer their customers the same quality and value they expect when they visit a restaurant.

"I like fresh food, good stuff, not food that's been sitting in the fridge, and food at a good price. If I give the customer a good price and a quality product, plus ample portions, they'll return to eat two-three times a month, instead of once a month," Martin said with a smile. " You know, 90 percent of our customers followed us from our other location, and our goal is to retain 100 percent of the new ones."

Gaelyn agreed, stating that, "We want our restaurant to be a comfortable kind of place, comfortable enough so you want to come back, that hometown feeling where you know everyone. We want a place where people are known personally, that vibe that people get where the proprietors actually remember the customer, what they like to eat, and they are treated like family."

If the crowds are any indication, the Martins are accomplishing just that. On a recent Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m., the place was bustling and the enticing aroma of island cooking wafted into the soft night air.

Still, if the Martins have a secret ingredient for their success, it may be in their chef Bobby Laing. Raised in Jamaica in Ochorios, Laing learned his skills cooking at his brother's restaurant on the island. With 20 years in the trade, this modest gentleman with a shy smile knows and loves Jamaican cooking

"To be honest, Jamaican cuisine is not just one style," Laing said. "It is a fusion of the foods of many people such as Dutch, French, Spanish, African, a blend of everybody. For me as a chef, I love to do what I do, and I do it with heart and soul. When I make food and the customers are pleased with what they get, it makes me very happy."

But be forewarned, readers: portions are amply sized at Island Soul, and like a doting grandma who plies you with food, guests will not leave hungry. Customers can feast on tostones, seafood fritters, Jerk, barbecue, collard greens, snapper, goat, oxtails, and ribs, among others.

Vegetarian preferences are included with dishes such as Tamal Azteca, a kind of veggie lasagna, enormous salads, yams, plantains, and black beans. All desserts are made in-house.

"Bobby grew up using the spices found in Jamaican food, and for him it's instinctive," Martin said. "He knows the taste, how this food is supposed to taste as anyone would who has grown up there."

Island Soul is located at 4869 Rainier Ave. S. 329-1202. The hours of operation are 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Mary Sanford may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]